Group of children drawing on a chalkboard
#64 Jennifer Trafton 2018
Childlike Creativity, July 29, 2022
In this episode of Rewrite Radio, Jennifer Trafton teaches her listeners and students that play is at the heart of creativity. She draws on her experiences as a child and in the classroom to invite writers to play so that the idea brings something new to the world.
Debbie Visser: Welcome to the Festival of Faith & Writing. And we're really happy that you're here. My name is Debbie Visser, and I'm a Faculty Fellow for the Center of Faith & Writing. I also teach adolescent lit and children's lit here.
And I am so pleased to introduce children's book author Jennifer Trafton. Her first novel for middle-grade readers, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic was nominated for the Tennessee's Volunteer State Book Award and the National Homeschool Book Award. Her most recent book, Henry and the Chalk Dragon, was recently published in 2017–so a very new fresh exciting book. It received starred reviews, and it's a wonderful story about a young artist trying to find the courage to share his gift.
Jennifer will be talking with us today about the playfulness in creativity and her own journey as a writer. I think this beautiful line from her book, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, might capture what we’ll embark on together today: “Out of the clumsiest moments of our lives, time can weave the most extraordinary tapestry of events.” I should also mention that she teaches children, and I love this first slide that she has. So help me welcome Jennifer Trafton.
Jennifer Trafton: Thank you. Thank you. Can everybody hear me? I tend to have a soft voice, so I want to make sure that everyone can hear me. Okay. Does anybody follow Humans of New York on Facebook or Instagram? I love them. There’s a photographer who goes around and interviews ordinary people, takes pictures, and lets them tell their stories. And it's gone way beyond New York.
This came across my feed this past week, and I just had to share it with you. Look at that kid. When you're six, you have like 28 responsibilities. You have to help your mom. You have to help your dad. You have to keep your room clean, so your parents don’t come in and see your secrets. I have over 100 secrets, and only five have been discovered because they're protected by lasers.
I'll tell you one, but then I'll have to throw it away. I'm a real ninja master because I got powers from glowing red rocks I found in the caverns of lost treasure. Someone hid them there in the 1980s during World War 7.
That's all I can tell you now because I don't want anybody to know how special I am.
That is why I write for kids. That's why I teach kids. That kid is my hero. I mean, the imagination. The self-confidence. I want to be him when I grow up.
The story of my life and my vocation as a writer is a story of a girl who's desperately trying to grow up without ever becoming a grown-up. There's also a sense in which my story is kind of like a quote I read once about E.B. White. He was a man who spent his life coming to terms with his fears. One of the most beloved and funny children's book authors of all time fought a lifelong battle against anxiety, which he called his peculiar kind of disability. But the same E.B. White said this about his writing: “A writer who isn't serious isn't a writer at all. My books are serious books, but a man doesn't have to give up jumping and dancing and singing because he is a serious man. I dive into a story the way I dive into the sea, prepared to splash about and make merry.” And this is E.B. White swinging on his swing in his barn, which if you know, Charlotte's Web, the significance.
In my own long struggle against fear and self-doubt, I've come to believe very strongly that at the heart of healthy creativity is the ability and the freedom and the courage to play. We fight fear and creative block with playfulness.
There's never been a time in my life when I have not loved stories. As a child, I spent hours surrounded by my dolls and toys, scrunched between a bed and a wall or under a desk or in the bathroom. Towels draped over chairs and boxes became a house or a hideout. This is how I spent most of my childhood up until almost my teens. I have a very specific, fifth grade memory of this: hidden in a corner by myself, within a fortress of furniture, getting lost in my own fantasy world. My imagination was bursting with ideas all the time, not so good at follow through, still not.
But I began consciously being a writer when I was 10 years old, I took a creative writing class, and I remember sitting at my desk grappling for the first times with the rhythms and the images of poetry. My parents gave me a blank journal, which I began to fill with poems for the next few years that still sits on my bookshelf at home as a reminder of the fresh and playful and truly disastrous first attempts of my literary career.
I also love to draw. And so my first publishing dream was to write and illustrate picture books. I began sending short stories and poetry to publishers and agents and magazines in my late teens. Everyone said no, which I'm very thankful for. Now that I go, when I go back and reread those submissions. So naturally, I pursued an academic career, and I spent most of my 20s in graduate school studying theology, history, and literature.
Now, I am deeply grateful for those years of learning and how they shaped my mind. But here was the problem: the creativity that was at the core of who I was became submerged and suppressed during those years. I'll never really be an artist, I thought. So drawing and painting were hobbies I could brush aside. I wanted to be a published author, but that was just a pipe dream, and I had to make a living doing something real.
And so I was so busy accomplishing things, that any time I spent writing a poem or making notes on a novel, I wanted to write some day, or drawing a picture, was accompanied by a sense of guilt because it was wasted time. It was selfish time. Well, I crashed so hard. I could be the poster child for academic burnout. I don't blame anyone else for that crisis in my life. I did it to myself. I did it by letting the creative soul underneath the perfect student nearly starve to death.
I was in the middle of my Ph.D program sitting in a heady seminar on theological aesthetics, and we were reading Hans Urs von Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord. Has anybody read this book? It is that thick and very small letters, and I suddenly realized–after two hours of philosophical discussion about truth and goodness and beauty–that I hadn't heard a word of it because while everybody else was picking apart these themes theologically, I have been turning it into a story in my head, a fairy tale.
Not long, after that, I walked into the children's section of a bookstore, and I spread my arms wide, and I bellowed at least in my heart, “These are my people.” And after that, my faith was sealed.
So I quit my doctoral program, I left the career path I’d been on, moved back home with my parents for a while, and it was art that brought me back to life. For a while, I painted every day in my room, just spending whole mornings with my paintbrush and my oils, and I didn't keep any of those paintings. I painted over and over the same canvases because I wasn't producing art. I was playing, that was the important thing. I filled up my imagination again with children's books. And I sat down and I finally wrote the novel that had been waiting patiently in the back of my brain. I discovered that daily creativity, beauty, quietness were essential to my being. And I learned to play again.
After I emerged from my cocoon of healing, I spent four years as the managing editor of Christian History Magazine, finally using my academic background. And at that time I revised The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic, that first book, secured an agent and a publisher, and it came out in December 2010.
I was already brimming with future story ideas, and I had the first draft of a new novel already written. I thought I was home free, I am an author. The path is wide open for me now.
My second novel Henry and the Chalk Dragon came out last year, April 2017. Six and a half years after the first book came out. Now, a lot of life happened during those six and a half years. Marriage, moved several times, I developed a teaching curriculum, but also a whole heck of a lot of rejection. Not just of that but everything else I tried to do. Discouragement, fear, procrastination, writer's block, more fear, more rejection, existential crises, but the real problem is that I let discouragement and fear shut me down creatively. I forgot how to play again. If you were at Kwame Alexander's talk, this morning. I'm the exact opposite personality from him.
So, believe me if you struggle with insecurity and self-doubt that block your creativity and keep you from even trying, I have heard all of those lies and more. How many of these do you recognize? – You are not a real writer. Real writers get up early every morning and faithfully write 2,000 words of effortless prose. Real writers have a dozen books to their name, get praised by critics, and win literary awards. How dare you show your face at a writers conference and pretend to be somebody who loves beauty and stories and creativity when all of those people are so much more talented than you and more worthy of being loved? You can't spend two hours a day drawing a picture. That's selfish. You have responsibilities. You need to make a living. Art is for yourself. Unless your story gets published, unless your paintings are sold in art galleries, unless your song is played on the radio, you have no business wasting your time on this creative stuff. And here's the worst: if you really, really try, if you put all your energy into this, if you pour your whole heart in and do your very best, you could discover finally in-definitively that you have no talent…and you are a failure. Better to play it safe, not try too hard. Brush it off as a hobby, and then you'll never fail.
The lies nearly sunk me. But during those six and a half years between the first draft of Henry and its publication, something happened. The story changed. It grew; it developed. It started as a story I wanted to give other people, and it became the story I needed to tell myself.
My first book about Mount Majestic began with a situation that made me laugh–the idea of a giant buried underground with people living on top of him. The second book Henry and the Chalk Dragon began with a character who popped into my head, whole and already named and demanded that I follow him on his adventure. This illustration, and the rest that I'm going to show from this book are by Benjamin Schipper, who's a very talented artist. At the time when I wrote it, I was enamored with Man of La Mancha. Have you ever seen the the musical, it was also movie based on Don Quixote? You know this the classic song “To Dream The Impossible Dream.” My husband said I should sing it. I said no.
I love the idea in the musical that Don Quixote is crazy vision of himself in his world was as enobling as it was eccentric. That his mad dreams of being a knight and following a quest and fighting giants, at least windmills, somehow burrowed down to some deeper truth about life than those who made fun of him could understand. And it made me think of how children play, how I played, transforming the house into other places, a cardboard box into a cave, a bed into a pirate ship, a homemade costume into a knight’s shiny suit of armor.
So Henry was my eight year old Don Quixote, and I wanted the world around him to sizzle with magical possibilities. And I also wanted to treat his imagination as wild and crazy as it was as it was with total seriousness, so that his fantasy is the reality. So the story goes a little crazy because have you ever listened to this story made up by an eight-year-old boy? This turned out to be the sticking point for most editors who read the book because the story was as untamed as a little boy's imagination. And on that point, I refused to budge.
As I explored the vast and wild terrain of Henry's imagination, I gradually realized that he had the eye of an artist, and so he would naturally love to draw. But as soon as he became an artist, then I had to be as truthful as I could about what being an artist–any kind of artist, including a writer–feels like. At least for me, and that's where this story began to grow and take the shape of the struggles that I was feeling at the time. For me, art has always felt like this. Like playing in my childhood bedroom, hidden away from the eyes of the world, reluctant to let anyone see. It's a terribly vulnerable thing to allow your precious inner visions of things that make you most you out into the world out into the open.
People might laugh. People might misunderstand. They might shrug their shoulders and not care. You might when your art is out there realize that it's all wrong–that it's not good or beautiful or worth anything. It might be twisted to mean something it doesn't mean. So much safer to keep it all hidden inside, locked away. So much safer for the artist, but so much sadder for the world.
So Henry Penwhistle is both an artist and a knight, and the connection between those two roles is first and foremost the need for courage. No matter what age you are, it is an act of great courage, and great intimacy to show the world your art. Courage that's usually reserved for the fiercest knights and intimacy reserved for the closest friends.
Like Henry, I too have fought dragons. And the worst of my dragons are fear and self-doubt. During the many revisions of this book, I was going through some of the hardest battles I've ever fought against those dragons. I've had to learn how to be brave like Henry when making art and letting it out into the world felt like an impossibly scary thing to do.
For example, I told you, I'd always loved to draw. I've loved to draw even longer than I'd loved to write. I drew all the time growing up. I did in my 20s in my early 30s, that got pushed aside by other things–except during stressful times when it was my therapy.
It's only been in the last few years during the revision of this book that I found the courage to finally say you know what this art thing isn't going to go away. It runs too deep in me. I may never be a professional artist, but I'm still an artist because I love to create. So a friend of mine challenged me to start posting my art and my hand lettering on Instagram as a discipline to force myself to do it regularly. So I began to do that. I accepted commissioned work, and I opened an Etsy shop and gulped down my fear enough to say to the world, “Hey, I'm not just a writer. This is part of who I am too.” That took a big step of bravery to me. And then, in that sense to my story has mirrored Henry's.
Now, I not only write, but I also teach creative writing both locally in Nashville and online, and teaching has been my open door into the imaginations of kids. I love their worlds of talking cats, and candy cities, and portals, and other worlds, and ninjas, and aliens, and bizarre creatures. I love their misspelled discombobulated eloquence. I love to catch them before anyone has had a chance to squeeze their creativity into a box yet. Because I know that the boxes are coming, and that worries me for their sake.
In an early chapter of Henry and the Chalk Dragon, La Mancha Elementary School–La Mancha…
…receives a visit from two mysterious people who Henry here referred to as the bored members, b-o-r-e-d. And who walk around in dark suits and glasses, write things in their notebooks and terrify the creatively repressed and desperately sycophantic principle.
As Principal Bunk with a cheerful smile, that seems permanently glued to his face, boasts about the school's stellar safety record and perfectly polished doorknobs, the bored members interrupt him, “But Principal Bunk,” said the bored man. “We're sorry to say,” said the bored women, “that the board has decided that there will no longer be a need for doorknobs. Yes, doorknobs have been cut out of the budget.”
Principal among stopped walking and swallows so hard that Henry could see the swallow slide all the way down his necktie, doorknobs?
Studies have shown that doorknobs will not help students do any better on tests. Therefore all doorknobs must be turned into the board by next week. Now I thought I was writing a gentle satire because that's what I love to do. I love to pounce on the little idiosyncrasies of people and situations and blow them up to ridiculous proportions.
Henry Penwhistle’s imagination is larger than life, so must his and the antagonist forces of antagonism in his world be. So his otherwise glorious teacher has forgotten her own childhood fantasies and doubted her own creativity so much that she leaves the class in an exercise of vapid artistic conformity
The class bully refuses to believe in anything that is not on the test. The principle gives Henry a stern lecture on the dangers of an untamed imagination, preparing him for the real world that only cares about facts and numbers and budgets, not art. The lunch lady is forced to suppress her wild culinary creativity, in favor of cafeteria pizza. And Henry's mischievous chalk dragon is not allowed in the national vegetable week art show because it is neither a vegetable nor a vegetarian.
I was afraid I was going too far, and that I would be getting angry letters from principals and board members and teachers as a thinking that I was attacking the school system. But last fall I spoke with a group of public school teachers, and they had read Henry, and they did not pelt me with erasers. In fact, their response to my over-the-top caricature of La Mancha Elementary School was, “How did you know?”
The scene of the board cutting the doorknobs was their favorite scene in the whole book because I said, that's exactly what we expect to happen next.
One teacher told me about a school that she knew that had actually outlawed crayons, even in the youngest grades because crayons were not helping the students perform any better academically. Coloring was a waste of time. If an administrator entered a classroom in that school, woe to the teacher if there were any crayons in sight.
Good grief. I thought I was writing a satire.
Now, I am not qualified to pronounce judgment on the educational system, but as a writer of books for children, and as a teacher of children, sort of an independent one, and as I creatively repressed person, who spent her life trying to get out of boxes, I have a lot of reasons for concern.
For years, I've heard stories from teachers and librarians and parents about the arts being cut out of the curriculum. About second grade students who've gotten physically ill during standardized testing week from anxiety. About curriculum that leaves no room for and no value for the Arts, you know, for making art for its own sake. And for students who don't even know what to do with a brief period of unstructured creative time even If they're given the chance.
I've learned despite being a grammar nerd and a former editor that I have to begin most of my creative writing classes by assuring the students I will not be correcting their spelling in their grammar. That I only care about their imagination in this class. Because so many kids are so uptight about being correct and pleasing the teacher that they can't simply let loose and write.
I've taught kids who hated writing because the only writing they got to do in school was boring. Which meant, they were told exactly what to do, how to do it with little freedom to be creative or to write about something that they are passionate about.
Now this is not just a public school issue. I came across a homeschool writing curriculum that insisted that kids should not be allowed to write stories until the later older grades after they learn to distinguish between what is real, and what is not real.
Literalism first, imagination can wait. I've taught a little, actually I teach a lot of homeschool kids, and I've had parents come up to me and say, “Well, I've I've tried to get my kids interested in writing, but they always see it as a chore as just homework, but when they come out of your class, they're so enthusiastic about writing. So what have I been doing wrong?”
And when I press deeper inevitably, they've been turning every writing activity into an exercise in spelling and grammar and story mechanics, and so the kids enthusiasm and creativity was getting squelched by structure.
But that's backwards. A good writer has to be a master of grammar and structure, but that's the second step. It's not the first. The first is falling in love with an idea, and with a process of bringing that idea to life. Whatever form a child's education takes–public school, private school, whatever, I'm going to leave that debate up to other people–I just I hope that certain conditions will prevail because at the root of my concern that it lies in my understanding of the process of creativity.
Sir Ken Robinson, anybody seen his Ted Talk? Enormously popular Ted Talk in 2006 about Do Schools Kill Creativity? And he tells a story of a six-year-old girl who is drawing a picture in the back of her classroom. Her teacher asked her what she was drawing, and she answered God. The teacher said, “But no one knows what God looks like.” And the girl said, “Well, they will in a minute.”
And his whole talk is like this, it’s hilarious. Well worth 20 minutes of your time. Robinson's point is this: if you are not prepared to be wrong, you'll never come up with anything original. To be creative, you have to be willing to risk making lots of mistakes. But as we get older, we learn we're not supposed to make mistakes. There are right answers and wrong answers, and we don't want to be wrong. And so we stop taking risks.
But you can't be original by sitting down and trying to be original. You have to let the ideas pour out of you, right or wrong. And only afterwards, do you go back and you evaluate or others evaluate what has value and what doesn't. We writers have a special name for this: the first draft. The first draft is playing on paper, letting your imagination go wherever it wants to go. And only in that playful freedom, will you be able to find any nuggets of true originality.
As the late Steve Jobs preached and demonstrated unconventional and world-changing ideas come from an unconventional life. From coloring outside the lines and from drawing new lines between dots no one else is connected. So give the children the crayons, and watch them innovate.
Last summer, I led a workshop for seven through twelve-year-olds, and the whole goal of the workshop was to come up with the most fantastical MacGyver-esque conventions we could. So I printed out all of these pictures of ordinary objects, bicycles, Duct tape, rubber bands, trash cans, trampolines. And I asked them, I gave them, you know, random combinations of these, and I asked them to draw and then describe their own imagined inventions that would make the world better using these objects.
Well, much hilarity and ingenuity and seed. And all I can say is we can look forward to a world, a future, of dramatic teleporting, space travel, lock-picking and brilliant new ways of waking up in the morning. There was no hint of well that's impossible–how can how can you climb a ladder beyond the Earth's atmosphere without an oxygen mask?
And I redirected the how questions of the more literal classmates. And I said, “Well remember there was a time when somebody said I wish I could put a box up to my ear and talk to somebody on the other side of the world.” And everybody thought they were crazy. And then suddenly they aren't.
I hope that there will be space in a child's education to allow for that over-the-top crazy brainstorming without it being turned into a teachable moment because that is the teachable moment, that free exercise of the imagination, the outlawing of wrong and right for a few brief minutes, when the only test that matters is the test of creative fearlessness. Audacious play. If we ever take that away from children, if we suppress that instinct towards creative play even before it meets the challenge of growing up, then God help us who will be our next Shakespeare or Steve Jobs or who will who will delight us with stories and shake the status quo with art that startles us and who will help us imagine a new kind of world?
I preach tirelessly about the importance of playing because I don't do it very well. No one knows more than I do how difficult it is to retain this ability as an adult. The only thing that helps me keep that faint spirit of playfulness alive in my soul is my memory of having had free rein to do so as a child.
So, as a teacher, I craft my classes according to my belief that play is at the heart of creativity. Since I'm an independent teacher, I don't have to give grades, which I'm very glad about, and I assure that students have added that at beginning. There's no wrong answer here. There's no bad assignment here. It's okay. If a student's plot is chaotic, her adjectives are overblown, and her characters are cliche. She's 10 years old. She wrote a story from beginning to end, and that's wonderful. And the more confidence she has to keep writing, soaking in the forms and the terms of writing, letting stories tumble out of her unselfconsciously, the better each one will be.
So I provide her a andbox and give her a shovel. And I trust that experience will improve her technique as it did for me. A friend pointed me to this wonderful quotation by Madeleine L’Engle, “The creative impulse like love can be killed, but it cannot be taught. What a librarian or a teacher or parent can do when working with children is to give the flame enough oxygen, so it can burn. As far as I'm concerned, this providing of oxygen is one of the noblest of all vocations.”
If you walk into one of my classes, you might catch the students making Play-Do sculptures as poetry prompts, speculating about the contents of a lock treasure chest, rewriting the lyrics of an operatic aria, reporting on the colors that they noticed in this week's spy mission, or reading allowed their latest stories about talking cats, giant sloths from outer space, and magical tacos.
I'm constantly looking for new activities to jumpstart kids' imaginations, and I especially love things that have a visual or tactile quality to them, like a backpack full of items owned by a main character that they have to invent, or photographs or art.
We find stories in Kandinsky paintings. I have kids draw maps of imagine lands and then come up with adventures that might happen there. My class of second graders learned about story structure, and drew the parts of the story first before writing them. And I also get on, get in on the fun. In one of my classes, I let the students brainstorm body parts of an imaginary creature, and then I draw what they tell me as literally as possible.
So this one, this one had to have amongst many other details, seven brown and purple checked legs, an orchid tail, porcupine quills, whiskers as curly as a pig's tail, three pairs of lidless almond-shaped blue eyes with pupils similar to a cat's, six horns in every color of the rainbow, soft lilac fur, giant wolf claws, a purple polka-dotted tie-dyed wing with sharp needles coming out of the polka dots, a tongue coming out of its head, and blue tentacles coming out of its toes.
I did my best.
There's another one. Whoops, another one from another class, I do not remember what all those parts were. There's one I had to do on the spot with a group of kids.
A huge part of the fun of writing is playing with words and stretching their possibilities. I discovered one of my best teaching tools in the book Poem Crazy: Freeing your Life with Words, by Susan Wooldridge. Has anybody read this book? I really should be getting a commission because I do most of the PR for the book, I think. I love, love, love this book. And she paced colorful energetic words and phrases on raffle tickets–the kind that you can buy in big rolls at Staples, and she uses them as writing prompts and raw material for poems.
I've used word-tickets in so many different ways in my writing classes, and the results are beautiful and hilarious. The kids are eager to discover new words, or to rediscover words that they never think of using, or put together words and new and crazy ways like the toenails of dolphins, platypus wool, a gargling lightbulb, a song of silver and ice, electric eucalyptus, the distant explosion of a marshmallow, icicles shivering and shuffling across the sky, the spicy sound of wind by the sea cliffs, extremely rare petrified slurps was just a collection from my kids.
With these basic building blocks of words spread out in front of them, like literary jigsaw puzzles, they build descriptions and poems that have brought me to tears. It's a couple examples of how I use this. I give them photographs of places, kind of grayed out in black and white, and then a lot of colorful markers, and then word-tickets. And they have to fill that photograph with words from the word-tickets. Words that describe things in their picture, words that describe their feelings when they look at the picture, metaphors, similes, whatever. And then we, but we make descriptions, we write descriptions from that–whole lot easier than staring at a blank page.
I also do this with people's faces, and I have them cover a person's face with words, and then we write poems about their faces. Anybody know the game Dixit? Fantastic game for families. It's one of those few games that's simple enough for kids, but really challenging for adults too. It's a storytelling game, but I mostly love it because it comes with all these cards that have really cool art on them. And one of my favorite things to do is to give kids a random Dixit card and then ten random word-tickets and between the card and the words in the word-tickets, they have to come up with a story that includes all of them, which can turn pretty crazy.
One of my favorite activities using word-tickets takes a cue from a poem crazy exercise of placing word tickets on random objects around a room and seeing what sort of images and metaphors arise from that. And to me, this reminded me again of how I played as a child and how Henry also plays, transforming the world around him into something else in his imagination.
So before the kids arrive, I write or I take the word-tickets or I write the words on Post-it notes, and I put them all over the room in which we’re holding the class, and on objects I usually bring in objects and put them around the room. The more surprising the combination the better. So vast on a teacup, tickle on a window pane, dinosaur and a coffee maker, mountain on a fuzzy white slipper.
And when the class begins, I ask the kids to walk around with her notebooks and their pencils and I tell them, “This is not the room you thought it was. It's a landscape–a world, a planet, a city–that only you can discover. So go explore it. each time you find an object with a word on it, take those two ideas slipper or mountain and knock them together in your imagination.”
Maybe then in this landscape, there's a mountain shaped like a shoe or a fuzzy mountain with a hole in the middle, or a mountain that can only be approached by stepping on a trail of white marshmallows, or a mountainous bedroom slipper of a giant.
So notice and imagine what treasure lies here. What danger lurks here. What is this place? And take notes on what you find. And after they explored, they've taken notes, then I tell them, okay, a quest needs an object. I've given you a bunch of possible quests here. Or you can come up with your own–many of the kids come up with their own. And then they have to write directions to the rest of the class for how to go on this quest through this landscape. So they have to tell the rest of us how to navigate the landscape, how to overcome dangers, how to unlock its magic, or appease its inhabitants in order to reach the object of the quest.
And the results can be very funny and very lovely and sometimes profound. Here are a few excerpts:
“Start at the ticklish waterfall and collect a silver wave of frozen air, then hop on one foot to where the dancing snake and the snail with lightning nostrils meet every time a brick falls into an inky pit.”
“To get to the place where the stories are born, you must first leap through the picture where the two worlds meet. Go over Monarch Mountains and let out the deranged dinosaurs. Find the pit of one thousand ants and ask the one in the corner where you can find the King of the Trees who will give you the stone of oozing twist, open the door by saying, ‘crunch, crunch, crunch,’ and you will be on the upside down moon. But beware, the dragon lurks in the stacked caves. Ask the Moon Monarch for her windswept chair, so you can fly over the vast desert and over the silver waves. And then ask for Mr. Bartholomew, and he will give you the key to our stories are born in your imagination.”
Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
As I teach my students to play with words, I'm constantly reminding myself of what I have to do as a writer in spite of all the inner resistance my grown-up brain throws my way. I have to relearn and relearn and relearn how to let my imagination loose to play.
I have a friend who's a ballet teacher, and she tells me about the difference between the kids and the adults that she teaches. And kids just burst out of the womb, wanting to wiggle, you know, and dance and complete freedom. And adults, you know, the need to not look silly in front of other people stiffens us and prevents us from dancing. We stop dancing as we grow up.
And the age when that stiffening starts to happen is different from different people. So, in Henry and the Chalk Dragon, Henry is a third grader who's already at that tipping point between unselfconscious play and self-conscious self-preservation. He's hiding his art from the world. He's deathly afraid of being laughed at. He's afraid of that vulnerability that comes from having the whole world witness what's going on in your imagination.
As I said Henry and the Chalk Dragon, grew to mirror many of my own struggles without my realizing it till later sometimes. Not only in Henry's journey, but also in the journeys of the adult characters who have either abandoned their creativity or who need a creative reawakening themselves.
This is the in the principal's office, he is about to get slimed by a gigantic slug that Henry drew. And Henry is pointing to the sketchbook that the principal kept as a child, which he kept his own childhood imaginings, that he's now embarrassed of.
And it's always fun as a writer when readers point out things that, you know, your own book that you didn't realize that you put there. And an insightful friend noticed that in multiple scenes of the story, I had figuratively put the adult characters into cages. So Principal Bunk becomes glued to his office chair. Miss Pimpernel the teacher is imprisoned on a raft made from her own bulletin board. And the lunch ladies held captive in a fortress of cafeteria tables and chairs. And I didn't even realize I had done this. I had dramatized the limitations of adults in this way. But of course, I've been held captive by many cages in my life–most of my own making.
For so many adults, it's hard to recapture the freedom that we had as children. To let our imaginations out to play, to shake off the voices that tell us we're not creative, or it's too late for us. We need to make money doing something real, and sometimes we need to let the children remind us of what it was like to be eight years old and have visions of dragons and stir that up in us again.
But I didn't want this book to be about how kids are the peer imaginative beings and adults or unimaginative doofuses. Some of the grown-ups in Henry's world have squelched or forgotten their creativity, but there's still hope for them.
The great science fiction writer Ray Bradbury wrote a book called Zen in the Art of Writing, which I love, because it's so full of this childlike sense of fun. He really loves writing. You can tell. This is him in his study surrounded by his skeletons and all of his toys. And he talks about how what we love as a child, we love freely. We're taught to unlove things as we get older because of the criticism or the mockery of other people. But what Bradbury did, and what he encourages other people to do is to stay in love because those early loves are the mulch from which creativity grows.
I was in love then with monsters and skeletons and circuses and carnivals and dinosaurs. And at last, the red planet, Mars. From these primitive bricks, I have built a life and a career by my staying in love with all these amazing things. All the good things in my existence have come about. By keeping these childhood delights alive, he was providing himself fertile ground for all the stories he would write as he grew older.
The things you are passionate about as a child, are the things that will shape you now as a writer and an artist. So sometimes you need to go back and rediscover that childlike passion in order to rediscover your creative passion as an adult. I love this quote by G. K. Chesterton: “At the back of our brain, so to speak, there's a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence. The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sunrise of wonder.”
One of the ways that I dig for that submerged sunrise of wonder in myself is to go back and reread my favorite children's books from when I was a child, The Wizard of Oz Series, the Shoes Books, the Anne of Green Gables, Lewis Carroll, and Madeleine L'Engle. I go back, and I dig into that imaginative compost of my early life, and somehow in that process, something comes back to life for me again.
So when I hold writing workshops for adults, I don't focus on the craft of writing, I figure there are more than enough people out there doing a very good job of that. And instead I talked about playing, I let the participants vent about their own grown-up fears and barriers, and then I use some of the same activities, workshops, and worksheets with the adults that I use with my kids.
Adults tend to find them a lot more intimidating. It's very hard for them, at first anyway, to shed their need to write something good and to risk looking foolish in a room full of strangers. But then very, very slowly. I hear the shy ripples of laughter begin, and the self-consciousness fade into smiles, and the grown-ups are playing.
I've done a couple of workshops at Christian retreats, and for those I prepared a special writing activity, and that's what I want to end with today. I started the usual way by spreading my word tickets out in front of the participants and telling them to experiment and put words together into phrases that inspire them or surprise them or make them laugh, or words that they wouldn't normally put together. Create images that are unexpected or playful or silly or evocative. It's okay if this generates a lot of nonsense, I tell them.
But before I tell them what they're going to do with those phrases, and before I tell you, I talk about what it means to be creative beings made in the image of a Creator, not just the creator of this.
But the creator of this…and this…and this…and this…and this…and this.
William Paley, famously looked at the universe and saw a divine watchmaker. I see a kid older than time playing with a cosmic Lego set. I see a God who sometimes seems to have more in common with the eight-year-old in my storytelling class than with the deity of many theologians.
Or to put it another way, I think that that eight-year-old intuits something about God and about the world that I with all of my years of church-going and Seminary training keep forgetting.
You only need to take a look at the inhabitants of planet Earth, at aardvarks and dugongs and star-nosed moles, naked mole rats, and proboscis monkeys to know that their maker has a fantastic sense of humor. The divine creativity, like the creativity of a child, is playful. The fact that he expressed that creativity by squishing, stretching, and swirling species in a vast evolutionary stewpot isn't in the slightest bit threatening to my beautiful image of the Creator.
It's hilarious. It's delightful. What fun He must have had all those eons. Like an omnipotent, toddler squeezing his play-doh sculpture over and over again through a cosmic noodle-maker,.
According to Scripture, we haven't seen the last of that playful Divine creativity that plopped us in the middle of a screwball comedy, despite all of humanity's efforts to turn it into a tragic farce.
So when I wonder what it will be like when God rolls up his sleeves and unleashes his glee in a redeemed creation, and when I want to know what my role as sub-Creator might look like and how it might anticipate that future day, I look to the children, to their magic, portals and exploding marshmallows, and spicy sea winds, their willingness to play with the pieces of the world that they've been given, and put them together in new ways and take delight in at all.
To be able to look at the world as it is and be able to glimpse the threads of beauty and goodness of what the world will someday become, to be able to imagine a different way of being human on the earth takes an enormous feat of imagination. And that's one of the reasons why nurturing the imagination of kids is so vitally important, because if we can't imagine, we can't hope.
And though, the children must grow up and be broken by life, as we're all broken. Hope remembers that the God we cry out to in our distress is also the God who once said, let there be a proboscis monkey and let his magnificent nose fill the childlike with laughter and those dark days of the world, when all hope is lost.
I am looking forward to that day when I finally see what childlike impish gleam of humor and God's imagination produced the duckbill platypus and the leafy sea dragon and the blobfish. For the children make me wonder whether this crazy over-the-top creativity that we participate in together, this laughing hope might not in fact be the most important thing, the thing that will reach beyond the present age and into the age to come. Jurgen Moltmann wrote a little book called Theology of Play. Which by the way is $900. It's out of print now. I found this out when I was trying to get a hold of him. It's later republished as Theology of Joy.
And he talks about the creation as God's play, and about human playfulness as an anticipation of the freedom and the joy that is to come. And when I read that recently, I said, “Yes, that is what I've been saying for years. I could have been a famous theologian after all.” and Moltmann quotes a line from a slave spiritual: “How can I Play when I'm in a Strange Land?” He suggests that our games, our freest moments of play point us forward towards a future liberation. Christ suffered so that we might laugh again.
Only the innocent, namely children or those liberated from guilt, namely the beloved are able to play. Faith is a new spontaneity and a light heart. In faith, we accept ourselves as we are and gain new confidence in ourselves, because we have been trusted more than we deserve and ever thought possible.
Easter opens up the boundary-crossing freedom to play the game of the New Creation.
If you want a true theologian playfulness, you can't do much better than G. K. Chesterton.
“It is not only possible to say a great deal in praise of play, it is really possible to see the highest things and praise of it. It might reasonably be maintained that the true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden. Heaven is a playground. To be at last in such secure innocence that one can juggle with the universe and the stars, to be so good that one can treat everything as a joke–that maybe perhaps the real end and final holiday of human souls.”
So back to my retreat workshop after the participants had come up with about a dozen or so beautiful, weird, goofy combinations of words, I gave them their assignment. Use those phrases to write a Psalm. A prayer of playful praise to the Creator because God not only made a playful creation, He made creatures capable of playing. And I believe that our play delights him as much as that blobfish does. We modeled our psalm-like poems on the poem “Pied Beauty” by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and we ended the workshop by mixing up each other's papers and praying each other’s psalms out loud. Affirming each person's playful praise with a resounding Amen.
Yes, we giggled a lot. And yes, a few of us teared up more than once. I'm just going to read you one:
“Glory be to God for playful things. For the confetti, flutter of a spring garden, for the elastic, slurp of a caterpillar’s kiss. Give glory and guzzle the essence of a book. Cherish the towering music of camels. When ideas flow like fearsome worlds within, give glory. Hear the whimsical purring of the Milky Way. Its stars hum and precision. See the seven giants afloat in stormy seas. Embark on the treasure hunt embodied in roses and give Him glory. Spidering sunlight, ablaze with color, imagine the feeling, the jitterbug sizzle, the meandering truth of pulsing lights. Blam. Further splendors swarm and thunder clouds while the emperor's dream of blank spaces his discovery propels the orphan to wonders. Praise Him.”
In one of her essays, Madeleine l'engle talks about the difference between childish and childlike. “A childish book, like a childish person, is limited, unspontaneous, closed in. But the childlike book, like the childlike person, breaks out of all boundaries. And joy is the key. But in the battering around of growing up the child gets hurt, and he puts on a shell of protection; he is frightened, and he slams doors. Real maturity lies in having the courage to open doors again, or, when they are pointed out, to go through them.”
This courage to keep re-opening the doors, to break out of that adult shell of protection, to let joy loosen in all of its childlike messiness is a daily struggle for me. I am afraid all the time. And I've had to come to terms with the fact that I can't wait until the fear goes away before I write anything. Bravery means picking up my sword or my pencil and diving into the fray no matter how I feel. I've also had to slowly push away my anxieties about what will happen to a work of art or a story once it's free in the world, that has a life of its own.
As the bus driver, Mr. Bruce tells Henry, “All you can do is make the best thing you can and love it as hard as you can and let it go.”
You have to be brave to be an artist. You have to squeeze your fear down deep in your chest and make something new.
Well, I loved Henry the best I could, and now I'm letting them go and trying to make something new. When I sit down to be creative, I'm engaging in a spiritual battle against my fear, my pride, my perfectionism, my tendency to compare myself, to others, my despair, over my own inadequacy. I have to lose myself, I have to become a child again and learn to play again. And when I do, I come out cleansed on the other side.
My job is to play with the pieces of the world that I've been given. To find the delight inherent in them and make something delightful out of them even if the only one delighted is me. Because when I write, when I play on paper, I'm practicing. I'm practicing for the day when the world would be turned right side up again, the day when God will set aside my paper dreams and teach me how to make a star. The day when human life is revised and polished and the true story finally emerges–a story of freedom, fresh air, laughter, and children playing.
Thanks very much.
Heidi Groenboom: Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin University in Grand Rapids, MI. You can find more information about the Center, our initiatives, and our signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at CCFW.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram @CCFWgr. You can also subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Thanks so much for listening, and stay tuned for more from our archives.